MONTREAL — There is little secret that Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov loves Montreal and the fans who support the team in good times and (mostly) in bad.
As his two last contracts were within months or days of expiration, Markov declined to test the lucrative waters of unrestricted free agency. In May 2007, he signed a four-year, $23-million contract with the Habs, followed in June 2011 by another for $17.25 million over three years.
So it was little surprise after Monday’s Brossard practice that Markov said he’d very much like to play out his career with the only club for which he’s skated in the NHL.
“How long that’s going to be, you never know,” the 35-year-old said, the early afternoon dressing room by now vacated by teammates, equipment staff and media.
“It’s not only my decision, (but) also management, the organization. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
And then, with a few more words and his familiar ace-up-my-sleeve chuckle, Markov wedged open a great deal of space for reading between his lines — as he often does in conversation when there’s more to the story he’s not about to divulge.
“Maybe I’m going to sign another contract tomorrow. Maybe in another month. We’ll see,” he said. “I’d like to stay here for the rest of my career. You can see some players in their 40s who still play. I don’t want to think that far. Whatever is going to happen tomorrow will happen tomorrow.”
Preliminary talks have begun between general manager Marc Bergevin and Markov, who not long ago ended a relationship with agent Donnie Meehan that predated his 1998 sixth-round drafting into the NHL by the Canadiens.
Until further notice, the defenceman is without professional representation. He could choose to be without it altogether, perhaps having a lawyer review the details of any new contract.
Markov would have a good idea what he’s worth on the market; so would the Canadiens.
“Marc is interested to talk to me but there’s nothing specific now,” the veteran said, drawing a deep breath and taking a long pause. “There is nothing I can say right now.”
If Markov’s unquestionable leadership is plain to see, an intangible is the impact he could have in the development of fellow Russian defenceman Alexei Emelin, 27, now in his third NHL season.
And Markov’s durability has taken a dramatic U-turn. Heading into lockout-shortened 2012-13, he had skated in only 73 of his NHL club’s 272 games since 2009-10, having undergone two knee reconstructions. Today, he’s his team’s current iron man, Tuesday’s game against New Jersey his 105th consecutive regular-season match.
With the salary cap headed north, money might be less of an issue on a contract than term. Would the Canadiens want to go three years on a new deal? Would Markov opt to take a few dollars less, perhaps in the neighbourhood of his $5.75-million annual wage now, but ask for, say, five years, which would be the longest contract of his career?
No one is saying, and no one is likely to say until a deal is either done or Markov is wearing a different jersey.
The native of Voskresensk shakes his head when I ask him whether he knows that his time on ice this season, a team-leading 25:24 average, is 26 seconds per game more than he averaged in any of his 12 previous NHL seasons.
“I haven’t seen that stat,” he replied. “It depends on the game, I guess. Sometimes, you’re more tired than others. But at the same time, I like to play a lot. It’s fun, it’s a challenge for you. I think everybody wants to play a lot.”
The most recent of Markov’s five goals this season was Saturday’s overtime laser against Chicago, the fifth two-goal game of his 730-game career.
“Sometimes, you just shoot,” he said with a shrug of the pinpoint game-winner, which followed his second-period blast that opened the scoring. “Your hands move automatically, you don’t have time to think where you’re going to shoot.”
Markov laughs when I tell him, asking that he takes it in the spirit intended, that he’s not been playing this season like a man his age.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m happy I’m healthy. I did lots of work the last couple of years (following knee surgeries) to build that strength. Now, I just try to enjoy every shift, every game, and have fun.
“I’m working a little bit more now than before between games. Rest is important, so is nutrition. All of these things help you to stay in shape.”
Ahead are 36 Canadiens games, plus he hopes the playoffs, with the Sochi Olympics planted in the middle. Maybe the best place to be for a Russian Olympian these days is on this side of the pond, out of the cauldron of pressure back home.
“Look at how many people we have in our face every day,” Markov said with a laugh about the media crush in Montreal. “I’ve gotten used to it and I respect the job the media must do. Sometimes, it’s not the way you’d like it, but it’s understandable.
“The pressure in Russia has already started. It’s not going to be easy, everybody knows that. Every team is pretty much going to be a challenge.”
For now, the Olympics and a contract are only in the back of Markov’s mind. Of pressing concern is Tuesday’s game against the Devils and a chance for the Canadiens to build on the momentum of Saturday’s impressive win over Chicago.
“It’s a long season and ups and downs are normal for every team in the league. It’s not easy to be at the same level all season long,” he said. “We have to take the good part from the last game and keep going.
“Just try to do your best every shift and have fun out there. It’s pretty simple, really.”
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